Nichole Nordeman: The Bottom Line
Christian music's "Wrestling Poet" stops asking questions and instead concentrates on God's goodness.
by Lisa Tedder
It's a sweltering, sunny day toward the end of August. In the roped-off, open-air backstage of Lamb Jam 2002, most of the artists and staff sit scattered on benches, sweaty and tired and trying to cool off. But Nichole Nordeman, after a four-hour plane ride and a two-hour drive, looks amazingly cool, fresh and relaxed.
Comfortably dressed in a red tank top and khakis, her smooth hair pulled back from her face, Nordeman seems unconscious of both the heat and the fact that traffic pushed her arrival at the Delaware venue nearly two hours behind schedule. "Which is so ironic," she confides to me, 'because the number-one thing on my pet peeve list is people who are late. I am probably the most punctual person you will ever meet."
Except for today, of course, but you'd never guess that she's pressed for time from her easygoing interactions with people. She's sharing the stage with the likes of Out of Eden, Shaun Groves and Jars of Clay, but right now, Nordeman is the only person backstage who's being treated like a celebrity. Festival staff and radio representatives line up with families in tow so they can introduce them to her. It seems that everyone just wants to shake her hand.
Is all this attention intimidating for a self-proclaimed introvert? Or is it an ego boost for a woman who describes her lifelong struggle as the tendency to base her self-esteem on others' perceptions? Nichole reflects on the dilemma. "The main reason people want to talk to me," she says slowly, "is because something I've written resonates with something in their lives. It's not about me - it's about what God has given me to write down and how that connected with someone else."
But Nordeman's face-to-face connections with her backstage fans are cut short when her road manager calls her up for sound check. She disappears into the artist dressing room, actually it's a trailer, and a short 10 minutes transform her from ordinary girl to artsy musician. Her lacy, flowing blouse and slick dark pants seem a little glamorous for a girl-next-door type, who prefers nonfiction to poetry and "Seinfeld" to "X-Files." She takes off her high-heeled sandals, however, as soon as she sits down at the keyboard, and she remains barefoot until the performance is over. So much for the perfect pop star image I was half-expecting. But when I tell her how much more down-to-earth she seems than I had anticipated, she looks surprised.
"I don't really think about my performance persona," she laughs. "I've never tried to portray a certain image onstage, except that I do try to be as real as I can." This thrust for authenticity is a driving force in her songwriting as well. Nordeman agrees, "I always ask myself, 'How can I say this without being contrived? How can I reframe it so it's more meaningful?"
This very effort to avoid cliche is central to Nordeman's image as an artist. Dove awards and 300,000 plus in album sales indicate the success of this "uncovered" approach to art. But the enthusiasm of her fans goes far beyond the appeal of her music or her artistry. Many listeners find a level of personal connection with Nordeman that is rare, even in the Christian music industry.
"I go to great lengths to be accessible to people," she readily admits. "Sometimes unwisely. The 'diva' mentality is very unattractive to me."
After her performance at Lamb Jam, I get to glimpse just how accessible she is - and how much that impacts her image as an artist. On the way from the stage to her post-concert autograph signing, a woman and two teen girls spot Nordeman in the front seat of our golf cart and flag us down.
Introducing the group as mother, daughter and daughter's best friend, the mother tells us that her daughter's friend had no middle name. "But for her 16th birthday," she finishes
proudly, "we gave her a certificate with her full name adding the middle name of Nichole - after you."
"Your music is so inspiring," adds the friend with the new moniker. "And I love your voice."
"Wow," says Nordeman. What else can she say? But she nods and smiles graciously, visibly moved. Thank You."
What is it about Nordeman that inspires someone to identify with her so deeply that she would adopt her name as her own?
Nordeman doesn't really know. "I'm a little comfortable with fan-dom," she confesses. "Partly because I'm an introvert. And also because I've been a people-pleaser my whole life." Apparently the need for approval is only exacerbated by the music industry. "It's been even more of a struggle since I became an artist," she concurs. "There are so many more people to please. It's my daily cross to remember: It's not about me; it's not about me."
And remembering that is only made more difficult by the reputation Nordeman has established as a songwriter. Reflecting on her music over the struggle. I'm the artist who wrestles and doubts and then writes about it." Although the articulation of such doubts can meet an often-neglected need for her listeners. Nordeman is beginning to feel uncomfortable with her own questions.
"Why is it so much easier to write about my own struggle than to write about how good God is? She asks, "This concerns me," Deliberating, she pursues. "Have I spent so much time in the self-absorbed land of questioning and reasoning that I am unable to just worship?"
The realization that her songwriting has centered around herself for so long led Nordeman to make a conscious shift in the writing of her third album, Woven and Spum (Sparrow), which released in September. But perhaps fans are disappointed by this new lack of complexity, still expecting a cerebral challenge from her that they might not find in the simplicity of worship. Nordeman shrugs off such fears.
"I'm tired of trying to be the artist," she refutes;" - tired of trying to be the 'Nichole Nordeman.' I'm just exhausted with the whole thing."
And even when she's trying to be less introspective, Nordeman can't help the self-revealing honesty of her songwriting. The most personal song on Woven and Spun responds to this lifelong struggle for everyone's approval.
"'Take Me as I Am' talks about the amazing gap that exists between who I really wish I was and the reality of who I am," she explains. She quotes the lyrics to me, pausing a few minutes to recall them. "At the end of myself/At the end of the day/I can find little else but the courage to say. 'I need You.'/That's all. I need You."
"And that's where I am right now," she concludes with characteristic vulnerably. "I need God". She lets truth sink in, for herself as much as for me. "So do you. That's the bottom line."
"Originally published in the November 2002 issue of CCM Magazine, copyright 2002, CCM Communications. Reprinted with permission. For CCM Magazine subscription information, please call: (800)333-9643."